We have a child in our home who sometimes becomes insolent and uncooperative. When we first blended our families I was one of those parents who thought (mistakenly) that our child needed more punishment. I thought our child was acting out of disrespect and pure mean-ness. I am the first to admit that I responded to this child by punishing and becoming angry. We tried everything with this child, every punishment method there is – grounding, spanking, time-outs, removing all the things in this child’s room, it was crazy the consequences this child did not respond to.
I have learned the most difficult way possible that my response to this child only fueled the insolence and disobedience. I have learned that there are times this child shuts down. Sometimes my asking this child to do something or to stop doing something, my requests are momentarily seen by this child as a threat. This child will literally shut down, sometimes eyes glaze over and I cannot lie, it looks like flat out disobedience and disrespect. It looks like defiance! Clear, flat out defiance! My natural response to that defiance in the past was my own anger and shock that this child dared to act in this way – and I reacted.
Through much studying, therapy sessions, unbelievable confrontations and copious amounts of tears, I have come to realize that my behaviors only escalated this child’s behavior. The angrier I got, the more I punished, the more this child was going to act out and the more this child was going to appear to defy me. I learned that this child was not acting out of defiance to me necessarily, but that this child’s body mentally, emotionally, and physically shut down beyond ability to control. I learned that removing this child from the situation, sending to room with a reminder that child was being defiant and when child was willing to cooperate child could return to the family, was the most effective solution. My calmness and my refusal to escalate has become crucial in managing our household.
Simply allowing this child time to process the request, decide the request is not unreasonable, and determine that it is in best interest to cooperate, allows this child the ability to return to the situation with clarity and compliance.
It pains me to think there will be times when this child is not able to remove self and process, and then decide to become compliant in self’s best interest. I watch the videos of the girl in SC and I realize that she needed a moment to collect herself and determine that what was being asked of her was not unreasonable – and that her refusal to do what was being asked was her own body shutting her down emotionally, physically, and mentally. That shut-down looks an awful lot like defiance. And we as a society are taught and continue to repeat the adage that defiance requires spanking or throw-downs.
Whether this officer acted out of racism is anyone’s best guess, but I can tell you that society has colored all of our interactions to believe that when children act out they need violence. Humans have a strange relationship with punishment – we think our children need punishment in order to solve all human behavior issues, but I and every other psychologist can tell you that punishment is violence. And violence is never the answer. I’m still seeing comments in response to this case that if this child had only been spanked she would have respected that cop – and I can tell you first hand that when the human body shuts down in these instances it has nothing at all to do with punishment or lack thereof. It has everything to do with how the human brain perceives threat and everything to do with fight or flight. When the body cannot fight and cannot flee it shuts down.
I’m not sure we can know precisely why this child shut down the way she did, just as I frequently do not understand why our child shuts down. But I know that anger and violence only escalate the situation and remove the human dignity of all parties involved. There are methods to de-escalate situations where children and teens become uncooperative, and those methods should never involve violence or abuse. Chances are, if that officer had said, “You have two minutes to place your phone right here on this desk or else you will be physically removed from the school,” that girl would have done precisely that – laid her phone on the desk without incident.
It is beyond time for our society to reevaluate our methods of dealing with our children and teens. This is not because children are “entitled or spoiled brats,” but rather because there are better ways to help them deal with their very complex emotions, and because we cannot expect children to be emotion-less robots. Our children deserve the best from us and deserve the best from law enforcement. This cannot happen until we begin to demand it – and first we must stare our relationship with violence in the face. We each have a troubled past with violence.
Lord in your mercy, teach us how to practice peace, the way you showed us. Teach us to suffer the children, as they are messy and insolent and defiant, but they are of immeasurable sacred worth.